How a tune up turned into a cylinder head replacement – 5.2L Magnum FAIL

A few years ago, my father-in-law was looking to purchase a truck to use to haul stuff and use while he was in town. We found a Dodge Ram, that a friend of ours happened to own that he was looking to get rid of. It was a 1994 Dodge Ram 1500 4×4 Regular Cab, with the 5.2L Magnum V8 and an automatic transmission. I really ideal truck by my standards for trucks. His father was the original owner on it and while it was showing it’s age, it was in surprisingly decent shape overall for the asking price. It needed some TLC, but it seemed like it would serve the purpose just fine. My father-in-law went ahead and purchased it, then left it with me to go through and get it up to par so it could be somewhat reliable transportation.

The plan was pretty simple. Give it a bath, clean it up, and inspect everything really well. It idled a little rough, so I figured it probably could use a tune up and some basic maintenance. I changed the oil in it, then picked up the rest of the parts to do a full tune-up on it. This particular engine was “tubes” that the spark plugs have around them to protect the spark plug wires from excessive heat from the exhaust manifold and potentially melting them. This design is pretty useless in my opinion and it allows water to get trapped in them, causing – you guessed it – the plugs to get rusted in the cylinder head in some cases. Shockingly every plug came out eventually, except for the LAST ONE. This one was located at the back of the drivers side rear cylinder head, right next to the master cylinder. I put a little extra force on it to break loose and it finally did, but I quickly realized something was very wrong. I had broken off the spark plug in the cylinder head at this point, but somehow it got much, much worse from there. Somehow all of the threaded part of the base was still stuck and broken off in the cylinder head. Everything else came out – the porcelain and everything in one piece. So at this point I knew I was already heading a direction I wasn’t excited about at all.

The next obvious step was to attempt to remove the remainder of the plug base from the cylinder head. An extractor was pretty much the only easy option to begin with. I tried multiple methods starting with the least aggressive, then all types of penetrating oils, torches, and breaker bars. I’m sure you guessed by now, I broke a few extractors trying this. I attempted to find a way to drill it out, but there was no way, unless I removed the master cylinder and power brake booster. I was running out of options and at this point I finally realized I needed to move the truck inside to make a new plan. From that point it lived in the garage for a few months, as the next steps caused me to dive way deeper into this cheap beater truck than I had ever hoped.

After speaking with a few friends and trying to figure out my best course of action, it seemed the most sensible thing to do was remove the cylinder head. This way I would be able to put the cylinder head on the bench and hopefully drill out and get the remainder of the spark plug finally removed. So I tore the engine down and removed the drivers side cylinder head. Cleaned it up and began to inspect it. While most of my friends and family know this already, I’ll go ahead and let the rest of the audience in on a little secret: I tend to have really bad luck with and working on automobiles. In addition to that; when I fail – I almost always fail spectacularly. Now that we have that out of the way and you know what to expect, we can continue.

After a brief inspection, I discovered a crack in the cylinder head. Great… These engines are known for cracking the cylinder heads and now I have no clue what other variables are at play with this discovery. I quickly realized that I am now in too deep to turn back and try to get out of this situation on a reasonable budget. I chose to remove the other cylinder head and evaluate it, considering the shape of the last one. It was in better shape, but the overall condition of the engine was pretty rough. Tons of gunk and carbon buildup, as you would expect but no other damage was present thankfully. Still, at this point I would at minimum need to have the heads machined and put it back together. After much consideration, I decided to not go for a full rebuild, but everything from the block up would be gone through. This is where this tune up became the most expensive tune up ever.

I shopped around for a while and much research, I finally decided to just buy a set of “heavy duty” remanufactured heads made from upgraded, known good castings. These came loaded with new springs, valves, and valve stem seals. I cleaned up the tops of the cylinders, the block surface, and the oil valley. Then I cleaned up the pushrods and checked each individual one for wear and to make sure none were bent. All checked out good. I then installed the new heads with new Felpro gaskets and from there I thoroughly cleaned the intake manifold and reinstalled it with new gaskets. I rebuilt the throttle body and every single fuel injector by hand. I reinstalled the freshly cleaned rocker arms and adjusted them to spec. I then finished reinstalling the remaining items and everything else needed to get it running again. I’m sure I left out some details here, but you get the point – I went above and beyond to make sure at least the top end of this truck was put back together correctly.

Finally the time came to fire this engine up for the first time in months, after me carefully reassembling everything. Much to my surprise, after a few times turning the engine – it fired right up and idled like nothing ever happened. A few minor adjustments and then re-tightening the intake manifold and everything was fine. Somehow, even with me failing spectacularly initially, the truck ran fantastic after all of this. It only took months of my time and about a grand(give or take) out of my pocket to fix it. Go figure.

In the end, the trouble more than paid for itself though – as the truck served us well for a couple of years hauling whatever we needed to and being a great backup vehicle for the family. I had hoped to eventually turn it into an off-roader, but time and funds never allowed it. We did eventually choose to sell it and I was a bit saddened to see it go. I wasn’t normally a fan of this generation of the Dodge Ram, but this truck was special and had been very reliable ever since this happened. As far as I know, it’s still serving its new owner well to this day. I occasionally see it and it still looks the same.

After owning and working on this truck though, I would absolutely consider buying another someday. I never have been much of a Mopar guy, but this truck gave me new found respect for them. It was super easy to work on and was a great driving vehicle for what it was. Sometimes failure ends up surprising us in the end. I know in this situation it certainly did and I’m thankful I decided to save this old truck and pour some time into it, so it could live on for a few more years and even serve someone else well. In my experience, some of the best vehicles I’ve owned were the ones I’ve had to lowest expectations for. Give that old beater a chance friends – it might surprise you.

Oh and try not to break off spark plugs in cylinder heads. That can be a rather expensive way to do some routine maintenance. 🙂

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